Children Electrocuted in Georgia, Construction Company With Corrupt Past Questioned

Three children were electrocuted on Thursday when they climbed into a newly renovated city fountain in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to ​​retrieve a ball. The fountain has been refurbished by a company whose owners have previously been convicted for corruption.

Tbilisi Fountain Vaka ParkTbilisi city officials at the Vake Park opening. (Photo: OCCRP)A 13-year-old girl has died, while the other two children have been hospitalized, one in critical condition.

Vake Park — where the fountain is located — had been officially reopened for visitors the day before, October 12, after a reconstruction project lasting two years.

“A terrible thing has happened, it is very hard for everyone,” Tbilisi mayor Kakha Kaladze told reporters. “And the investigation, of course, will determine everything. Everyone, including me, will be held accountable for the crime. If I have committed any crime, I am ready to answer to the law."

In October 2021, a company called LTD Greenservice+ won the contract to renovate the fountain for a fee of about 11.8 million GEL, or almost US$4.3 million. As required by the project, the company submitted six inspection reports to the mayoral office. The inspections were performed by private companies hired by Greenservice+. All the reports claimed that the work had been done properly.

“The rehabilitation works have been performed in accordance with the design and cost accounting documentation,” states the report from the final inspection, carried out August 25.

Greenservice+ was awarded with the project despite the fact that in 2018 it had been featured in a report by Transparency International Georgia about companies that should be restricted from participating in public procurement, as two of its owners have past convictions on corruption charges.

When Lasha Purtskhvanidze was the governor of a district in Tbilisi and Koba Kharshiladze was his deputy, the two registered in 2007 a company under a similar name, Greenservice LLC, in the names of acquaintances. The company proceeded to bid for and win public contracts while its two secret founders sat on the tender commission.

Arrested for corruption in 2013, Purtskhvanidze pleaded guilty and was fined, while Kharshiladze was sent to prison for two years.

Nevertheless, Greenservice+, which the two registered in 2010, began vidding on government tenders in 2013 — the year of their conviction — and has since won numerous government contracts worth millions of dollars, including for the renovation of the fountain. Purtskhvanidze and Kharshiladze currently both own 33% shares in the company.

On October 12, mayor Kaladze, whose office issued the tender, attended the opening of the renovated park and made a statement to the press in which he singled out the work on the fountain.

"The second stage of the works was the rehabilitation of the small cascade and the round fountain, which was completed and turned out to be beautiful,” Kaladze said. “I am sure that when the works are completely finished and the main cascade is rehabilitated, it will be one of the best places to gather, relax and unwind. In addition, since many people use this space, we decided to add a special area for children, where additional new attractions will be arranged."

On the day of the tragedy, news celebrating the opening of the fountain were quickly deleted from Tbilisi City Hall’s website.

OCCRP attempted to contact Greenservice+ director Lasha Purtskhanidze, but his phone was switched off. Later, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that he was being interrogated along with other responsible persons.

Released on Friday night, Purtskhanidze told journalists that the company had a tested the fountain for two months and that no problems were observed.

“The only thing I will say is that it looks like a predetermined action, I can't say anything else, the investigation will show,” he said.

At a briefing on Thursday, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Aleksandre Darakhvelidze promised a thorough investigation of the tragedy. Authorities are interviewing people from LTD Greenservice+, City Hall employees, teachers and other representatives from Public School No. 55, which the children attended. The people responsible for their deaths would be punished with the “full severity” of the law, he added.

According to the tender contract, Tbilisi Municipal Laboratory, the state agency that oversees construction and civil engineering throughout the city, was supposed to supervise the work to be done by Greenservice+. OCCRP tried to contact the director of the laboratory, Lasha Samkharadze, but his phone was also switched off.

Thursday evening protesters gathered in front of the City Hall and later in front of Parliament, demanding mayor Kaladze’s resignation.